Ursula K. Le Guin’s newest novel, now out in a handsome trade paperback edition, is quite simply described as a retelling of the last six books of the Aeneid. In a sense, Le Guin shows her age there: the Aeneid was once quite central to a classical education. Virgil’s poem is the great Latin epic, to compare with Homer’s Greek epics the Iliad and the Odyssey. At one time almost any educated person would have learned Greek and Latin, and in the process read these poems. More recently, familiarity with at least translations of these works was common. But nowadays the best we can hope for is that most people know of these works, and probably know the basic outline of the story.
I’m as guilty as anyone here. I’ve read a prose translation (much abridged, I believe) of the Odyssey, but I know of the Iliad and the Aeneid only in summary, and by having read derivative works. I do know the basic story—the three poems are closely related, telling first (in the Iliad) of the Trojan War, in which an assembly of Greek city-states besieged Troy for ten years in an attempt to reclaim Helen, the wife of Menelaus who had been kidnapped by the Trojan prince Paris. The other two poems both tell of long journeys: the Odyssey of the Greek strategist Odysseus’s ten year journey home to Ithaca, and the Aeneid of the Trojan hero Aeneas’s similarly long journey to what would become Rome, to found a new nation. (Aeneas is regarded as an ancestor of Romulus and Remus.)
The Aeneid differs from Homer’s poems in being a self-conscious work of literature, indisputably by a single man, Publius Vergilius Maro, who lived in the first century BCE. By contrast, it is not at all clear that a poet named Homer existed – at any rate the two Greek epics attributed to him are surely at least in part the product of a considerable oral tradition. Virgil, writing centuries later, was in a sense writing historical fiction, and also explicitly writing in support of his people’s sense of their own roots. He also famously left the Aeneid unfinished, and only the intervention of the Emperor, Augustus, saved the poem from burning.
What does all this have to do with Lavinia? The novel is, as I said, a retelling of the final books of Virgil’s epic. Lavinia is the name of the Latin woman that Aeneas married, and the conclusion to Vergil’s story turns on this: Lavinia, daughter of the king of Latium, had been promised to another local king, Turnus, and when instead she is betrothed to the foreigner Aeneas, Turnus makes war on Latium, leading to a climactic battle with Aeneas. Lavinia has a very small part in Virgil’s poem. Le Guin’s goal here is to flesh out her life.
Lavinia tells her own story, beginning in her youth. Her father is a wise king named Latinus. Her mother, Amata, is from a nearby kingdom, and has been driven mad after Lavinia’s two brothers both died. This sets up a dynamic that drives some of the later action: her mother resents, even hates, Lavinia, and wants nothing to do with Latinus, but both of them are too dutiful to put Amata in her place. As Lavinia grows older she grows spiritually—she communes with the local gods much as her father does—and of course physically, and, as with any royal woman, the question of her marriage becomes politically charged. Many prominent local men are interested, but, naturally, it is the kings and kings’ sons who are most eligible. The clear leader is Turnus, who is handsome and charismatic, and who is also Amata’s nephew. (Thus he and Lavinia are first cousins, but of course in royal marriages such consanguinity was often no bar.) Unfortunately, Turnus’s character is in question—and, indeed, Lavinia cannot respect or love him.
This sets her up against her mother’s wishes. Things are complicated when an oracle declares that Lavinia must not marry a local man. And then the Trojans arrive, wishing merely to settle peacefully in the area. Alas, with fault on both sides, war results, leading to the climax of the Aeneid, Aeneas’s defeat and killing of Turnus. And Lavinia, who truly loves Aeneas, marries him and bears him a son. The novel continues with an interesting account of Lavinia’s life after Aeneas’s death, particularly her struggle to raise her son free from the influence of Aeneas’s elder son (child of his dead Trojan wife Creusa), who in Le Guin’s telling has grievous character faults of his own.
All this is quite a fascinating tale. It is a cliché to say it, but it is fair also—this is a woman’s tale, told from a woman’s point of view, and thus we see much of the effects of war on noncombatants, of the importance of family life in forming character, of the labor of maintaining a household. And all this is greatly involving, much deepening the “male” story Virgil told. (To be sure, Le Guin’s modern viewpoint in and of itself deepens the story, at least for contemporary readers.) And the quotidian details of life in Italy in the 12th Century BCE are very nicely presented—though Le Guin is careful to remind us in an afterword that her version of that life is rather idealized. In addition, as we surely expect, the prose is lovely—graceful and firm, musical, clear—Le Guin is ever a joy to read.
Lavinia is, by any measure, one of the best fantastical novels of 2008. Yet it has to some extent been slighted on awards lists. (It did win the Locus Award for Best Fantasy novel, and appeared on the Tiptree honor list, but otherwise is appeared on none of the major shortlists. [Though Le Guin did actually win the Nebula for Best Novel, with Powers, from 2007.]) I suspect this is in part because at first glance it may not appear like a fantasy. The novel is suffused with fantastical elements: the gods are real and present, the future is foretold, oracles are consulted and answer. But nonetheless, the status of the Aeneid as a form of Roman history—and as an established “classic” basis of the novel—gives the impression that this is historical fiction. Le Guin’s novel is fantastical in another, rather metafictional sense. Lavinia, in telling the story, is aware that she is a fictional character, and she continues in a sort of “bardo”, not able to die because she did not die in the poem. (She even has conversations with Virgil, and is vouchsafed visions of Rome’s future.) But even this, though clearly fantastical, does not necessarily “feel” like genre fantasy. (Indeed it is a device not dissimilar to ones used in many mainstream novels.) Be all that as it may, for me this is the best fantasy novel of 2008—a lovely novel that stands as yet another landmark in a remarkable career.
Ursula K. Le Guin
Mariner Books, Boston
$14.95 tpb, 280 pages
2009 (original hardcover publication in 2008).